Virtual affairs cause real problems

By The Gazette

Cheating spouses don't have to leave home to be bad. They go to the computer - and promptly leave a trail

In the old days, lipstick on a shirt collar and suspicious late-night phone calls were signs your spouse might be a- cheatin'.

But even adultery has gone high-tech.

More and more people are discovering online evidence of their partner's peccadillos.

People who send email love notes to their paramours or who meet up for salacious conversations in chat rooms should beware: Big Brother - or your cuckolded spouse - may be watching you.

Montreal divorce lawyer Robert Teitelbaum says that in the last five to 10 years, an increasing number of his clients have been coming in with evidence they've found on the Internet - and many of them weren't even looking for dirt when they made their discoveries.

"Husbands and wives may be on chat rooms late into the evening.

"The spouse only discovers this weeks later when they happen to be looking at the history on their computers.

People don't always clear their history," said Teitelbaum.

Teitelbaum, who's been in practice for 30 years, says several of his clients have actually married the people they met in online chat rooms.

"In one case, I handled the second divorce," he said.

Gerald Stotland, a family law lawyer with Lavery, De Billy, reports seeing a similar increase in evidence acquired over the Internet.

"I've had cases where there have been Internet liaisons established which the other spouse has discovered, and instances where communications between one of the spouses has indicated a possible involvement with someone else.

"I've also encountered cases where one of the spouses has been accessing pornography, and this has become an issue not only in the marriage but also in child custody," he said.

Though neither Teitelbaum nor Stotland were willing to divulge more specific details, Stotland indicated he's heard some pretty wild stories.

"I have a saying: You think you've seen it all until the next client walks into your office," he said.

If Stotland had to give a word of advice to cheating spouses who hope not to be discovered, it would be to do a better job of covering their tracks.

"People have to be more cautious with respect to the messages they receive and send on their computers. Once you delete something from a computer, it's never really deleted," he said.

Stotland should know.

On more than one occasion - he won't say how many times exactly - Stotland has called on Texas forensic examiner John Wiechman to help him acquire online evidence.

Wiechman is founder and president of TLSI, a company that specializes in recovering computer data.

When Wiechman started his business in the late '80s, he mostly helped people recover data from crashed hard drives.

But these days, about half his work is forensics, meaning he looks for incriminating evidence on people's computers.

"I go to court more than most lawyers," Wiechman said during a recent phone interview.

Most of Wiechman's forensics cases are related to matrimonial disputes.

"When we get a call of this nature, it's usually a disgruntled spouse - and usually a female," he said.

Wiechman charges $300 an hour for his services.

When possible, he and his team do house calls, tapping for example, into a husband's computer when he's away at work.

Other clients courier their spouses' hard drives over to Wiechman.

"The chain of custody is very important. It's essential to know that no one else played with the computer," he said.

Wiechman tells the story of a man who was convinced his wife was

having an affair: "It turned out she wasn't."

But the wife was keeping some pretty shocking secrets Wiechman was able to uncover.

"She was logging into (a) website and having sexual relations online with other men and with sex toys."

The husband didn't react well, though they attempted to reconcile. But 18 months later, she was back at it again.

"She claimed it was just a way for her to earn a living," Wiechman said.

But online evidence isn't always enough. "That's because we can't usually prove the identity of the person who has done it," he said.

Wiechman has only handled two cases where he was able to conclusively identify a cheating spouse in court. "They had their webcams turned on themselves," he said.

Asset tracking is also becoming a bigger part of Wiechman's business.

He can access an individual's online banking activities and determine whether the person has offshore bank accounts.

"Sometimes people have stock and bank accounts under fictitious names," he said.

It's a good thing for Wiechman that people feel secure when they are

online - otherwise, he'd be out of business. "People don't realize they leave tracks, which is where I come in."

Wiechman stresses the importance of bringing in a forensics expert to collect online evidence.

"Otherwise the date and time stamps on the file could be changed - and that information can be very important," he said.

Digital information tends to have a long life.

Wiechman warned that even evidence-wiping computer programs may not keep people's secrets safe.

"If you're not an expert user, it'll still leave data out there for us.

My simplest and best advice is: don't do it," he said.